“Look, I didn’t mean to start an argument. And I don’t know why you’re all offended. I merely said that I think you are an idiot, so I don’t see what the big deal is.”
This is something you will probably never hear in the course of a high stakes conversation between two people. Much more subtle are the ways we sometimes fail to keep the focus on what does and does not need to be conveyed when discussing potentially volatile issues.
Usually, we don’t come right out and call someone an idiot. And it isn’t always the case that being offended shows forth with the words, “Hey, that was offensive.”
Such sentiments are revealed, though concealed, in complex subtleties; nuances that are picked up and responded to at a somewhat subconscious level. They feed arguments that take place at the conscious level. An unpleasant conflict can get kindled, lit and escalate quickly, almost before either party realizes what just happened.
That’s where one of the most important lessons in the eye-opening book, Crucial Conversations (by authors Kerry Petersen, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler) comes into play. Crucial Conversations suggests that before any high stakes conversation takes place, we need to know for sure what we want to get across. It is absolutely crucial that we communicate from the heart and that we stay focused on what we really want and, for that matter, what we don’t want.
If I know that I want to honor the other person, I can decide, in advance of our conversation, that my speech will not contain words used as a weapon. In my determination not to hurt, I will be aiming for honor as I formulate the message that I do want to get across.
Sounds pretty reasonable so far, right? If so, then let’s put into practice what the authors of Crucial Conversations also recommend. It is a technique that all but assures the successful outcome of what they term a “high stakes” conversation. The technique: speaking up!
Explain to the other person, out loud, exactly what outcome you want to accomplish in the conversation and exactly what you want to avoid.
I want to discuss the ways we can recover the production time we lost while the machinery malfunction was getting resolved. And I want to make sure you know, from the outset, that this is not about blaming you for anything.
We need to get your valued input about the budget. We also want to make sure you know that your department is not a low priority.
This conversation is about making sure you are clear on our curfew expectations. It is not about controlling you or curtailing your freedom or independence.
The authors noted above are in-depth researchers. They have interviewed thousands of people and consulted with multiple scores of companies over the last many years. In the process, they literally wrote the book(s) on the topic of how the most effective communicators and influencers convey big and important messages and ideas.
According to their research, there are two big keys to successfully navigating a crucial conversation toward an outcome that all participants are happy with. The first is described above: say exactly what do want to accomplish (to know and to communicate, at the very beginning, what the intended outcome is) and to state exactly what you do not want the conversation to turn into (a negative event).
The second is a skill that requires some practice (also alluded to above): watch for the nuances in voice and body language that might indicate the other person does not feel “safe”.
When the unskilled person sees these queues, they often feel threatened and they escalate the negativity into a scenario that can quickly spiral into a failed opportunity to build trust. The skilled conversation practitioner, however, knows that safety must be reaffirmed and reestablished when it has been lost… before proceeding into rhetorical territory fraught with proverbial land mines.
Start With Heart is the name of one of the chapters in Crucial Conversations and it needs to be the objective of anyone intending to blast through the obstacle of negative outcomes from past botched high states conversations.
— Jim Aitkins
In addition to Crucial Conversations, the interested reader is also urged to check out Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change (formerly subtitled The Power To Change Anything). So much is being said about leadership these days. Many people who recoil at the suggestion that that they ought to be a leader and/or develop leadership skills, have no problem with the notion that everyone can be a person of influence; everyone can be an agent of positive change. Since we are all influencers by default (we cannot help but influence people and events around us, even in subtle ways, for better or for worse), the environment we are influencing is either changing for the better or for the worse. These very engaging books – filled with all kinds of practical applications and real life stories – can help everyone become a more intentional leader/person of influence. Oh, and if you pick up Crucial Conversations and like it, you may also want to grab the great follow up to it: Crucial Confrontations. Where Crucial Conversations deals with helping the reader communicate expectations, Crucial Confrontations will help the reader skillfully handle situations when expectations have not been met. Perfect for any leader… or person of influence.